Sun Belt Conference to add Coastal Carolina _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson answers questions at the media day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on July 20, 2015.

LAFAYETTE — The Sun Belt Conference has agreed to add Coastal Carolina to its ranks, with the Chanticleers set to begin competing in the 2016-17 academic year and in football in 2017.

The presidents and chancellors of full-time SBC member schools met Sunday in Dallas and decided to offer Coastal Carolina membership into the league.

Coastal Carolina accepted, and the SBC formally announced the addition Tuesday at Coastal Carolina’s campus.

“Today is a very important day for the future of the Sun Belt Conference,” said SBC commissioner Karl Benson. “We culminate three years of efforts and work to create a membership structure that really is intended for all of our student athletes.

“This decision was not driven by any particular sport, it was not driven by any type of revenue projections, it wasn’t driven by television, media markets. This was done with one intention; to take care of our current student athletes from our 11 core sports.”

The SBC has been seeking a 12th full-time member to balance the conference since Western Kentucky bolted for Conference USA in 2013. By adding Coastal Carolina, the league can now be split into eastern and western divisions that make geographic sense.

The divisions would likely feature the teams from Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas in the east, with teams from Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas in the west.

“Today we solved that geography issue with Coastal Carolina,” Benson said. “We will create those distinct east/west divisions. … That was our goal, and we have satisfied that.”

The addition of Coastal Carolina — which, like recent additions Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, is moving up from the FCS level — would bring the SBC to 12 teams, enabling it to hold a conference title game in football under the current NCAA rules.

But by the time Coastal Carolina joins the conference as a football member, it’s likely the NCAA will change the rule mandating a conference to have 12 teams in order to play a conference championship game.

It’s possible, Benson said, that the SBC may not even be a 12-team football league by the time Coastal Carolina plays its first game as an SBC member. Idaho and New Mexico State signed a four-year agreement prior to last football season, and that deal is “subject to renewal” after this year.

“There will be an evaluation, an assessment and a decision made whether to extend the football-only membership to New Mexico State and Idaho,” Benson said. “I think it’s premature now to even speculate as to what that decision is. Once that decision is made, we’ll either be a 12-team league in 2017, or perhaps an 11-team or 10-team league.”

But football was not the main consideration for adding a 12th member. Coastal Carolina also represents a travel partner for Appalachian State in sports other than football, which Benson said would be a priority when looking at potential new members.

“That’s what drove this,” Benson said.

Appalachian State is the only full member that doesn’t share its state boundaries with at least one other team for sports other than football. While Coastal Carolina, which is located in Conway, South Carolina, wouldn’t solve that issue, it would represent the shortest distance the Mountaineers would have to travel their remote campus.

“Coastal Carolina’s proximity to our campus is a great thing for Appalachian State,” said Mountaineers’ director of athletics Doug Gillin in a statement. “It provides a short trip for our student athletes, another regular chance for our fans across the region to support the Mountaineers off the mountain and the opportunity for our programs to develop a great rivalry.”